Friday, 10 May 2013

On The First Pages Of Astonishing X-Men #62 & Wolverine #3

In which the blogger wonders once again what the point of an opening page might be. Who is it supposed to be speaking to, and what should it be designed to achieve?;

  
Astonishing X-Men #62, by Marjorie Liu, Gabriel Hernandez Walta et al

The first page of Astonishing X-Men #62 seems to have been crafted for the reader who's uncommonly patient, informed and undemanding. Patient, because the side suggests that the narrative captions relate to the events being shown without any hint of how or why. Informed, because Liu avoids identifying either the names or the motivations of Mystique and Sabertooth. Undemanding, because there's no hint of any plot-driving conflict to be seen beyond a minor and underplayed disagreement about kittens in the final panel. The presumption appears to be that super-people are so fascinating in themselves that their very existence compels our attention. Bad dreams, a room empty of much beyond screens showing what seems to be TV news, the awkwardly-phrased mystery of Iceman's hunger; the enigmas we're presented with appear mild and humdrum. Indeed, Liu and Walta even appear desperate to underplay the remarkableness of the mutants they're portraying. It's almost as if the story had been designed to modestly not call attention to itself, and that's what it succeeds in doing.

If Liu's script is, for all its undoubted craft, anaemic, then Walta's art is pleasantly unremarkable. His depiction of Tokyo and Mystique's progress through it lacks character or distinctiveness. Even the third panel's matter-of-fact suggestion of shape-changing seems to have been made as inconspicuous and uninteresting as possible. (The partially-obscuring presence of the caption there helps to diminish whatever interest the scene might offer.) As such, the only moment which isn't visually soporific is Sabertooth's baring of his fangs in the final frame. Yet even that lacks energy, and what might have been a dramatic shot is instead a mildly distracting one. Of course, it's hard to establish a super-villain as a seriously threatening proposition when he's having his kittens taken away from him. The very idea that Creed eats baby cats for lunch is a superficially attractive one, and yet all it does is emasculate him. After all, those three tiny felines make for a remarkably small and pathetically helpless meal for one of Marvel's most savage killers. To then have them scooped away, and with so little resistance being shown, is surely not the way to inform the reader of his character and the menace he poses. Even in establishing Mystique's authority over him, it leaves Creed seeming enervatingly subservient and unthreatening.
   

It appears that Liu believed that the juxtaposition of Drake's confessional "voice-over" and Mystique's everyday walkabout would prove compelling in itself. The reader, it seems, is expected to become involved in the mystery of how the two narratives relate to eachother. Yet anyone who doesn't know who these various characters are will most probably be alienated from the off. For it's only regular readers of the X-Books who'll have the background knowledge to make the sequence meaningful. Mysteriously, the issue's introductory text page makes no mention of Mystique or Sabertooth at all. Equally baffling, its explanation of why Iceman might be seeking counselling fails to mention his civilian identity. Confusion can only emerge for the neophyte when the captions of the story itself refer to "Bobby" rather than his mutant code-name. Why even have a text page when it offers so little assistance with the story it's designed to inform?

The beginning of a monthly book needn't involve a hysterical measure of world-threatening hype, and unfamiliar readers can certainly be intrigued by situations and characters they know nothing about. But this page's lack of visual distinctiveness, key information and, most deleteriously, liveliness does undermine the scene's appeal. For all that the art is careful and competent, and for all the undoubted craft that's evident in the script, this really isn't a particularly enticing introduction.

The marketplace is saturated with super-books. Some of them are excellent. Why would either the casual browser or the uncommitted consumer opt for Astonishing X-Men #62 on the evidence of this opening page?


Wolverine #3, by Paul Cornell, Alan Davis, Mark Farmer et al

There's no mention of the main character's names in Paul Cornell's script for the first side of Wolverine #3 either. But the book's text page has already done that. Both Logan and Fury are well-known even in the world beyond comics, and some might have been tempted to take that knowledge for granted. Yet the team behind Wolverine have made sure that the book is as clear, welcoming and involving as possible. That that clarity hasn't arrived at the cost of depth and detail is a mark of its creator's craft. As with the likes of Demon Knights and London Falling, it sees Cornell continuing to streamline his storytelling. Always working to create a maximum of effect with the least possible degree of show, he doesn't even reprise the Watcher's spectacular appearance from the previous issue's conclusion. It's been done, and done well, and now there's the rest of the story to be told. Instead, Cornell presents the necessary backstory in the form of a grand bout of bickering between super-spy and superhero. The opposite to redundant exposition, it ensures that the new reader's informed while the returnee learns something new about Logan and Fury's tempestuous relationship. As such, personalities are clearly defined while the scale of the emergency is established. More impressive yet, it's all wrapped up in a mere three panels, which frees up the final two frames for a new plot twist and a rather sinister page-turner

    
It's still a sequence which might have seemed static and uninvolving in the hands of a less accomplished artistic team. At worst, it might have ended up as nothing but a page of two shouting super-blokes, a mysterious knife-wielding woman and generic back alleys. But the dynamism of Alan Davis and Mark Farmer's collaboration capitalises on the potential of both Fury and Logan's testosterone-charged dispute and the enigmatic appearance of Victoria Frankenstein. Much of this is down to Davis's rarely-equalled ability to create physically distinctive and emotionally compelling characters. Some rely on the super-book's stock types, but Davis designs distinct individuals with their own particular frames and their own idiosyncratic body language. His super-people aren't objectivisied bubbles of muscle and fat, but fascinating human beings whose appearance transmits character rather than cliche. Even the more peripheral details of Davis and Farmer's art can be compelling. The suggestion of Wolverine's claws in the first panel's shadows, for example, is a smartly surreptitious way of foreshadowing future crises.

Accessible, distinctive and entertaining, the first page of Wolverine #3 shows one way to make an opening side matter.
 
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16 comments:

  1. In fairness to Liu, Colin, she shouldn't be penalised for knowing full well that only died-in-the-wool fans who read the book as an ongoing soap opera are buying Astonishing these days, though "Tokyo" looks oddly spacious for a notoriously compact city. I've only seen its exteriors and interiors look like that in anime, where traditionally lots of empty space is left so characters can be animated around objects, though this is almost universally taking artistic liberty with scale that the page featured doesn't require, even for space to be left for the captions. Being as it's Mystique and Sabretooth losing themselves in crowds (I assume - otherwise it would be pretty barmy to locate yourself next to a train station that sees 2 million passengers on an average shopping day) and being stuck in cramped quarters, it seems like a missed trick to give them such an unusual amount of elbow room.
    Interpretative liberty is the prerogative of any artist, but just the other day Marvel's own talent wrangler was pointing out that artists have to be able to "draw the actual buildings & landscape" of a city so I'm inclined to ask why not draw Tokyo as it is instead of opening with a stock image (a redundant practice in these days of Google Street View, surely?) and some barmy geography - is that really just a huge empty room without a door at the top of some stairs that let out onto the street?

    Mind you, I recall playing Godzilla when I was about six, and some windows drawn in biro on the side of cardboard boxes were enough for them to pass as buildings in my book - truly I am the worst kind of hypocrite.

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    1. Hello Brigonos:- Sir, I must disagree. Forsooth etc etc. Soap opera is as valid a genre as any, and it needs as much craft as any other. Of course, the problem isn't that AXM#62 lacks craft; Liu's story is quite obviously carefully worked. But the choices aren't welcoming to any but the committed.

      For all that soap has been part of the super-book since the Marvel Revolution - and it was a revolution too - it's rarely been well used. It's a really tough set of conventions to make work in a world of absurd powers, costumes etc etc. And if any form requires immediacy and transparency, it's soap opera.

      I can only agree about the depiction of Tokyo. There's no point in just throwing a vague, unremarkable representation of a city onto the page. It's got to be made to count for something. It doesn't even have to be accurate! Ditko's NYC might not have been particularly accurate - to say the least - but those water-towers and bill-boards!

      But you're so right about Google Street View. It's a scandal that more comic book artists don't put it to use. There's all-too-few books from Marvel and DC alike which show much beyond cliche. I can't help but think of Ross Andru spending days taking snaps of NYC when he was on ASM. It was an effort few of his contempories bothered to make, and it paid off, although few have ever credited it. (The Superman vs Spider-Man Treasury is a wonderful example of his research.)

      "Mind you, I recall playing Godzilla when I was about six, and some windows drawn in biro on the side of cardboard boxes were enough for them to pass as buildings in my book - truly I am the worst kind of hypocrite."

      Oh Gawd. Are we being judged on the sins of our 6 year old selves? WILL THE SHAME NEVER END?????/

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    2. Any good Catholic can tell you, Colin: NEVER FORGIVE.

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    3. Hello Brigonos:- Wouldn't bad Catholic's tell me the same? It's not a reliable test, Mr B, it's just not.

      Still, I do get the point. Oh the shame of it all ....

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  2. Glad to see the ol' compare and contrast for illustrative purposes.

    It's crazy tough to inject energy and the dramatic into every. single. panel. and you will fail at that, yes, but that's the sublime goal to strive towards. The only real failure, I suppose, comes from passively, thoughtlessly dropping whatever on the page with zero thought, zero craft, put behind it; in not making that good faith effort to produce to the best of your ability.

    Yeah, I was talking to myself just then. It's almost like good writing is hard to do... I may have been decieved into thinking otherwise by all those celebrity biographies in the newstands. Er, maybe not newstands. But you know what I mean.

    I have to ask whether there's a fundamental lacking in the current Astonishing X-Men run versus, say, the other X-Books, or if it's the case that Marvel is just pushing All New and Uncanny really hard. It seems that the last time anyone was really talking about Astonishing was when Northstar got married, which was some time ago now. Has anything been going on in this book since then, either story wise or from a behind the scenes writers/artists/editors perspective? What are the people running the show doing to try and convince me to try this book? All New X-Men has time travelling younger dopplegangers clashing with their future selves apparent loss of idealism.. and because of this, I am currently buying an X-book. Where's Astonishings pitch? Does it have one?

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    1. Hello Isaac:- You're quite right, it's absurd to expect that everything on the page can be made to work. The few examples of comics where that criteria can be successfully applied are masterpieces. Still, on a practical and purely selfish business, chin-stroking on such matters helps me keep my own priorities about my own writing clear.

      I hope I haven't suggested that AXM is thoughtless in its script. I disagree with the choices which Liu has made - for what little that counts for, and it counts for nothing at all! But choices have been carefully and purposefully made. That's a comic that's been cared for by its creators.

      I fear I know very little about AXM. I read the Northstar issue you refer to, and the previous issue to this. Neither appealed to me. Indeed, I found #61 to be almost incomprehensible. What is it USP? I suppose it must be the style of Liu, and the undoubted care that's taken in crafting the issues. I don't mean that to sound snotty. It's not an approach that I can warm too, and I hope I've explained something of why. But I suspect it's one of those books whose appeal relies on a creator's personal approach/

      I will admit, I'm not currently a fan of the X-books. In fact, I bought a number of comics from the mutant franchise this week just to stay in touch. Wolverine is a book I pick up anyway, but the others seemed to me to be ... unimpressive. Still, I'm going to pick up an X-book or two over the next couple of weeks. I've every faith there'll be some gems in the pack that I've missed.

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    2. We're actually in perfect agreement that the comics which fit those criteria (maximized energy and the dramatic) are masterpieces, and I seem to have pre-emptively agreed with your statement regarding "chin-stroking on such matters helps me keep my own priorities about my own writing clear"

      And don't worry, you didn't suggest Astonishing was a thoughtless script, just that maybe its elements could be stronger, more conducive to drawing in that elusive reader (though you can correct me if I'm wrong)- which is especially why I was glad you gave a counter example in looking at Wolverine. The Astonishing review on its own, while still helpful, was all the more clearly expressed when paired with an example of "doing it right". (not to say there isn't objective wiggle room about what "right" is artistically, but a comic's strength, more than any other medium, is to zoom in on the highest arc in a moment- that explosive Kirby fist just after it's clobbered an opponent- and to not use that strength without just cause is a mistake)

      I do need to ask for some clarification- what does your USP acronym stand for? I'm a little in the dark on that one... regardless, I don't think you have any cause to worry about sounding snotty or any such thing!

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    3. Hello Isaac:- Thanks for expressing the above so clearly. There's not a thing you've written that I could disagree with. On the one hand, that leaves me lacking anything at all that's not redundant to say. (Although I will be redundant and agree entirely on your example of the Kirby moment, of the second AFTER the blow's landed. It IS the choosing of exactly the right shot that counts.) On the other, it's good to feel sure that we're singing from the same hymn sheet.

      I hope you'll forgive my ignorance, but I have no idea what my USP acronym is, and Googling doesn't seem to help. I fear I'm missing something terribly obvious ....

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  3. Oh, no I wasn't asking about any technical computery thing (that stuff is usually beyond my ability or, if I wanted to be generous to myself, interest) I just wanted to know what you meant by USP in your reply "Neither appealed to me. Indeed, I found #61 to be almost incomprehensible. What is it USP? I suppose it must be the style of Liu, and the undoubted care that's taken in crafting the issues.."

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    1. Hello Isaac:- A-ha! The mystery solved. USP = Unique Selling Point, or; that thing which makes one product an essential buy and another not. And the problem with AXM is that it doesn't have a USP, unless it's Liu's style, which, I will readily admit, is one that many swear by. I can't see it being a USP that'll appeal to many, I fear.

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    2. Great! Now everything makes sense, cool, thanks!

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    3. Excellent. Sorry bout the confusion on my part.

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  4. You just can't go wrong with Alan Davis.

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    1. Hello Sally:- It has indeed been empirically proven that you cannot go wrong with AD artwork. It simply isn't scientific to suggest anything else.

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  5. Glad to see Alan Davis getting some well-deserved love. To me, he is the quintessential "perfect" comic artist, able to draw anything, anytime, anywhere and always make it look good.

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    1. Hello There:- I couldn't agree more on the matter of Mr Davis's art. I can still recall how astonishing it was to follow his development in the first half of the Eighties, and to watch him move from an adequate contributor to fanzines to one of the industry's finest in just a few years.

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